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The Dynamic Body Image and the Moving Body: revisiting Schilder's theory for psychological research

Francine Hanley

This paper is a critical examination of the construct referred to by the discipline of psychology as the body image and a reexamination of the formative work on that concept titled The image and appearance of the human body: studies in the constructive energies of the psyche by Paul Schilder. The paper begins with a discussion of the context in which the body image is understood in psychology. It argues that the discipline has misrepresented the concept, and thus ignored the importance of criterion validity in the development of this field of research. The discussion then describes core features of Schilder’s (1935/1978) theory as he presented them, focusing on his comments about dynamic construction, the plastic character of the body image and on the role of movement. The latter part of the discussion focuses on Schilder’s comments on the role of movement in the construction of the body image and on other allied works. It then presents excerpts from a qualitative study conducted as part of a doctoral project in psychology, that explored the viability of Schilder’s theory for empirical study. The discussion around the interview data integrates and builds upon Schilder’s theory in order to illustrate the versatility of that theory to furnish new insights into our understanding of the body image.

What the discipline of psychology refers to as the body image

The greater proportion of research conducted on the body image within the discipline of psychology since the postwar period has been generated by way of a particular methodological approach, referred to by Tiemersma (1989) as the structural-functional approach. The endeavour has culminated in a professional consensus about the conceptual structure of the body image as an “internal representation of your own outer appearance” (Thompson, Heinberg, Altabe, & Tantleff-Dunn, 1999, p. 4). This conceptualisation has salience in everyday life, although Tiemersma (1989) referred to it as only a memory image of the visual perception that has little to do with the actual presence of the body. This psychological construct has seemingly crossed over into commonplace language use. The popular press perpetually refers to the body image as an internal representation pertaining to the body’s appearance, and presents never ending narratives on the effort that women in the public eye expend in order to manipulate or perfect their physical appearance. This transfer of technical nomenclature into everyday language is not necessarily considered beneficial to the psychological subject. According to Rose (1997) such a transfer has the potential to redefine and restructure the way we take our own selves, or bodies in this example, as an object of thought. The present discussion supports Rose’s assertion and adds to it the argument that the concept identified by the discipline of psychology as ‘body image’ is doubly problematic, given that it has little relationship to Schilder’s original theoretical ideas (1935/1978).

What the discipline of psychology refers to as the body image emerged within the research literature with the advent of operationalism and the associated demand for the measurement of synchronic data (Tiemersma, 1989). This style of research has been conducted with a range of populations, although more often with women, in both clinical and non-clinical contexts. The methods applied have been designed to be relatively straightforward and reliable. They prioritise the viability of hypothetical constructs, that is, ideas based upon numerical scales that measure the intensity of particular aspects of subjective experience. When applied to the study of the body image, hypothetical constructs have identified a wide range of perceptual, cognitive and affective dimensions, accepted at face value as having a relationship to the body image but, as will be argued, have not necessarily demonstrated a pertinence to the dynamic theory described by Schilder (1935/1978).

The assertion often made by psychological researchers about Schilder’s (1935/1978) work is that his definition of the body image can be grasped in the first sentence of his monograph, which reads: “The image of the human body means the picture of our own body which we form in our mind, that is to say, the way it appears to ourselves” (p. 11). While this reduction of what is a rather complex theory to its opening remarks is in itself flawed, critics of Schilder are often too ardent in their efforts to be his judge. For example, many seek to affirm consanguinity to his theory for their own research interests, but will correspondingly posit his work as antiquated (Fisher, 1990), or lacking pertinence because of its psychoanalytic associations (Slade, 1994; Thompson, Heinberg, Altabe, & Tantleff-Dunn, 1999). In one text the authors reduce Schilder’s theory to his first sentence, and then roundly demolish the pertinence of this definition by describing it as being too simplistic (Pruzinsky & Cash, 2002). Perhaps few psychological researchers have comprehended Schilder’s interdisciplinary stance, or recognised how he actually defined the body image. For example, Schilder’s introduction continued with the following, although this excerpt can hardly be referred to as his definition either:

There are sensations which are given to us. We see parts of the body-surface. We have tactile, thermal, pain impressions. There are sensations which come from the muscles and their sheaths – sensations coming from the innervation of the muscles – and sensations from the viscera. Beyond that there is the immediate experience that there is a unity of the body. This unity is perceived, yet it is more than a perception. We call it a schema of our body or bodily schema following Head, who emphasizes the importance of the knowledge of the position of the body, postural model of the body. The body schema is the tri-dimensional image everybody has about himself [sic]. We may call it “body image”. The term indicates that we are not dealing with a mere sensation or imagination. There is a self- appearance of the body. It indicates also that, although it has come through the senses, it is not a mere perception. There are mental pictures and representations involved in it, but it is not mere representation. (p. 11)

This opening excerpt embodies a number of complex ideas, and is neither simplistic or antiquated. Firstly, Schilder described the body image as a picture that was ‘mental’ but that was built up from many levels of perception. For example, he referred to the self-referential impressions supported by interoceptive and exteroceptive sensation, but the experience of perception he imagined did not necessarily provide the sum of what he referred to as the body image. Rather, he went on to suggest that that perception transformed into something manifold and that the sense of unity associated with that transformation derived from much more than a sum of perception. He did not define the body image in the way that it is commonly referred to in the psychological literature, where the focus is on a static representation of one’s outer appearance. In spite of the fact that the research literature overwhelmingly indicates that the psychological relationship to one’s appearance may be important for psychological wellbeing, that enterprise as a whole has not demonstrated consanguinity to Schilder’s concept either with respect to the physiological basis or to the libidinous structure.

Schilder’s theory of the constructive energies of the psyche

To appreciate Schilder’s (1935/1978) theory, one needs to recognise that he had interdisciplinary interests by way of his training in clinical neurology and psychoanalysis. Additionally he had a particular fascination for the Gestalt psychology of his day, although he was critical of its seminal authors for making their ideas “too static” (p. 290) and neglecting the dynamic character of perception and of the gestalt processes involved in self-apperception. Schilder’s perspective was holistic. He portrayed the body image as an psycho-physiological achievement and ongoing process. To do this he re-envisioned “the postural model of the body”, described previously by Head and Holmes (1911-12), into a psychological phenomenon pertaining to the development of a sense of corporeal unity or bodilyness that is characterised by ‘normal’ psychology.

The most striking feature of Schilder’s (1935/1978) theory is his description of the body image as a continual activity. Schilder’s idea of dynamic construction characterised the body image as an “unconscious representation” (Anzieu, 1989, p. 89) and the activity of self-apperception that is made available by way of synaesthetic perception. His text elaborated on what he saw as a neurological capacity to construct wholes, in relation to ourselves, other people and the world around us, and he presented neurological and psychological case studies where this capacity derailed in order to demonstrate the psychological importance of the experience of bodily unity. Schilder‘s description of the body image centralised the temporal and emergent quality of this psychological process and underlined the relationship of our feelings of bodily unity to our capacity to think of our own corporeal body as both an idea and a felt reality.

Schilder’s (1935/1978) concept of the body image was tri-dimensional. He formulated it as having a libidinous structure, as well as both physiological and sociological dimensions. Thus he attended to three contexts through which the body image has pertinence, and his dynamic framework permitted him to explore the mutuality there may be between neurological and psychological disorders of the central nervous system. Schilder kept his three dimensions separate to the extent that each had its own unique logic, but he was drawn to their manifold expression in human experience.

The plastic character of the body image

The plasticity of the body image reflected, in part, the capacity described previously by Head and Holmes (1911-12) to incorporate objects into the postural model of the body, such as in the use of a walking stick, and extended it into the realm of libidinous life. So for example, Schilder (1935/1978) extended the theoretical breadth of the capacity for identification by describing it as an incorporation of parts of others’ bodies. Additionally, he noted that we not only carry with us the image of our changing and aging body of the present time, but that we also keep carrying the aspects of the body images we have accumulated throughout childhood and adolescence including our identifications. These images are unconscious and yet they are also the foundation upon which each person’s immediate experience of their body is made possible.

Particular contexts heighten the plastic character of the body image. Contexts such as sexual intimacy, creative performances and ceremonial rituals alter the limitations of the body with respect to its plasticity. Masks, clothing and costumes initiate a plastic experience also. In addition, Schilder (1935/1978) described dance as especially effective in transforming the rigidity of the body image. Dance loosens the body image and that loosening facilitates changes to our “psychic attitude” (p. 208). Plasticity in this respect is associated more with what Schilder identified with the libidinous structure of the body image. The plasticity of the body image is almost unlimited. It operates at the level of what Freud (1900/1976) referred to as primary process thinking, but the extent of that plasticity is delimited by the activity of construction itself in that it tends toward cohesion and unity, which Federn (1952) later characterised as a feeling of continuity with respect to time, space and causality.

The role of motility in body image construction

The experience of continuity afforded to psychological life by the activity of dynamic construction also has a relationship to bodily movement. Schilder noted that “we do not feel our body so much when it is at rest, but we get a clearer perception of it when it moves…” (Schilder, 1935/1978, p. 87). Further he noted that:

Movement is a great uniting factor between the different parts of the body. By movement we come into a definite relation with the outside world and to objects, and only in contact with this outside world are we able to correlate the diverse impressions concerning our own body. The knowledge of our own body is to a large extent dependent upon our action. (p. 112-13)

Schilder recognised movement as being more than an effect of motor coordination. Much like his interpretation of perception as a synaesthetic whole, he did not abstract the idea of movement into categories such as volitional movement, conscious and unconscious movement or action, although he was aware that those characteristics added value to the notion of movement. Every movement according to Schilder has an anticipatory plan through which it is deployed, and the anticipatory plan furnishes a gnostic image or “optic representation” (p. 52) of the anticipated action, that guides the initiation of every movement. Schilder posited that the anticipatory plan ensured the realisation of each action because it provided the structure needed to guide intention.

No action can begin spontaneously, nor is it mindless, but the point of departure in every movement requires an anticipatory plan and each plan requires that a point in the body be found in order to begin and execute that movement. Finding that point, or finding the body as Schilder (1935/1978) referred to it, is never an automatic act, it is not given, and must always involve some cognitive effort even though the selection made for the initiation of every movement may not require conscious effort. That cognitive effort involved in the initiation of movement depends upon the frame of reference organised by the body image, and the continual construction of the body image is correspondingly dependent upon bodily movement. Notably, the interaction and interdependence between the body image and movement is yet still as object of interest in contemporary neuroscientific research (Van den Bos & Jeannerod, 2002).

Kinaesthetic perception, body awareness and the body image

The sensory system directly pertaining to bodily movement is the kinaesthetic system. It is part of the broader musculoskeletal system and thereby part of what Solms and Turnbull (2002) identified as one of only two subjectively observed systems through which the conscious human subject establishes an awareness of him or herself as a body. De Oreo and Williams (1980) gave a broad description of the kinaesthetic system and noted that, like all perception, kinaesthetic perception does not operate in isolation. All sensory systems work in complementarity with others. Movement is thereby guided by all levels of perception although the kinaesthetic system is most clearly observed in the movement of the body.

The kinaesthetic system facilitates the integration of perceptual information in relation to gravity and posture for the initiation and execution of movement. According to Schilder (1935/1978), however, the integration of information goes beyond the execution of movement, but includes the construction of a frame of reference through which all experience refers. De Oreo and Williams (1980) described the kinaesthetic perceptual system as afferent signals emitted from muscles, tendons, joints and the vestibular system. It guides bodily movement through space and its self-referential character provides feedback to the cortex regarding voluntary actions. The kinaesthetic system mediates the body’s righting reflexes, supports our capacity to orient in space through our proprioception, and helps us maintain an upright posture. Proprioception in particular has been identified as particularly fundamental to psychological development and has been referred to as the body’s “dead-reckoning” (Massumi, 2002, p. 180). Its self-referential character has been referred to as being more fundamental and encompassing than exoreferential perceptual abilities like vision, and it is considered to be a more dependable frame of reference, since it permits the subtlest of adjustments in posture and action and functions without conscious attention. Proprioception has also been described as an “ongoing process” (Metzinger, 2003, p. 441), rather than a passive receptive ability, which puts its nature in a similar category to dynamic construction.

De Oreo and Williams (1980) further refined their description of the perceptual processing of the kinaesthetic system by distinguishing five abilities. These include kinaesthetic acuity, which enables us to detect the precision and accuracy of movement; kinaesthetic discrimination, which permits the discrimination of qualities such as extension, velocity and force; kinaesthetic figure-ground, which is the ability to tune into specific stimuli while ignoring others. This ability distinguishes the skills acquired by the trained body, and is different from the other modes of perception in that attention is focused upon the internal environment of the body rather than the external world. De Oreo and Williams also suggested that the refinement of the kinaesthetic figure-ground ability is made possible by the kinetic melody of movement, which is an integrated experience of the flow of movement as whole sequences. They also briefly distinguished kinaesthetic memory in the development of motor skills, and followed this with a broad description of kinaesthetic localization or body awareness. The kinaesthetic perceptual system is a particular set of abilities associated with motility and the organic structure of the moving body. However, as the basis of the body’s motility, it is also an integral aspect of the body image from the point of view of dynamic construction, and thus an integral part of psychological development.

The psychological immediacy of kinaesthetic perception

The psychological immediacy of movement and the kinaesthetic perceptual system in psychological development was described succinctly by Wallon (1954/ 1984). Wallon is associated with developmental psychology in his native France. His work and ideas emerged in parallel with the rise in popularity of Piaget’s studies, but Wallon’s ideas can be differentiated from Piaget’s on three important points. Firstly, Wallon did not assume as Piaget had that the infant lives in a psychological state akin to autism. Secondly, Wallon took a more naturalistic approach to his empirical investigation that, thirdly, permitted him to think more broadly about psychological development. Wallon’s focus thus went beyond cognitive development and included the child’s effort to synthesise information about its physical being and its place within its environment. His paper titled “Kinesthesia and the visual body image in the child” (1954/1984) describes the role that experience plays in the psychological organisation of two sensory systems and in the development of a sense of bodilyness. He characterises the body image and dynamic construction in the context of psychological development:

[The child’s] feeling of being himself, and hence his feeling of reality, is tied to proprioceptive impressions. His sense that he belongs to an objective order among things, and that things coexist with one another, depends on visual images… All normal activity therefore presupposes a tight connection between the kinesthetic and visual spheres…what we call the body schema may be seen as stretching between these two poles… The body schema is a necessity. It is called into being by the needs of activity. It is not given from the outset, nor is it a biological entity. Rather, it is the outcome and precondition of normal relations between the individual and the milieu (Wallon, 1954/1984: 130).

Notably, Wallon preferred the term ‘schema’ to ‘image’ here, but his interpretation of that schema derived from psychological activity he attributed to the creation of a sense of bodilyness. It is clear in his observation of the way that schema comes into being that the integration of kinesthesia and vision has similar theoretical assumptions guiding it to those stipulated by Schilder with respect to the role of movement and the construction of a manifold, plastic and yet stable experience of the body. The value of Wallon’s description here is that it temporally locates the activity of that construction to the child’s psychological development and the feeling of bodilyness it represents. It is pertinent to note that Metzinger (2003) has further underlined the relationship between the kinaesthetic perceptual system in the experience of continuity associated with the body image through his analysis of studies on schizophrenia.

The significance of Schilder’s conceptualisation to psychological knowledge

In evaluating the significance of Schilder’s (1935/1978) theory of the body image, Tiemersma (1989) described him as the central author in the psychoanalytic body image literature. This centrality he associated with Schilder’s theoretical development of Head and Holmes’ (1911-12) neurological conceptualisation into one of a dynamic, libidinous and cognitive activity and achievement across three dimensions of experience. He also suggested that the creativity of Schilder’s work could be observed in two streams in his thinking.

The first stream, Tiemersma (1989) argued, is found in Schilder’s (1935/1978) appreciation of the constructed body, brought to light by psychoanalysis and most especially in Freud’s (1950/1966) “Project for a scientific psychology”. With an appreciation of the constructed body “the reality of the body is no longer [simply] the reality of natural science” (Tiemersma, 1989, p. 168). The notion of the constructed body does not discount the effectiveness of an anatomical understanding of the body image pursued in neuroscientific investigations, but introduces a theoretical position from which the formulations relating to the organic body and psychology might be considered simultaneously. The dynamic assumptions about the organisation of the body image is not without controversy. Its designation as a psycho-physiological entity places it both in the realm of ‘the unconscious’, a phenomenon with little popularity outside psychoanalytic theory, and of ‘the homunculi’, a phenomenon associated with brain development. Nevertheless there have been renewed efforts to explore the constructed body or dynamic body image, where the interaction between movement, the image and psychological development has been re-imagined, and the role of the body image as a frame of reference in self-apperception has been revisited. Rosenfield (1992) noted the following in his exploration of the role of the body image in memory:

[The] body image becomes conscious by reference to itself; it is its own frame of reference…. Through this ever-changing dynamic image the brain creates a conscious world of extraordinary variety, organizing stimuli dynamically in its terms. It is to this dynamic image that stimuli are referred (self-reference) and in terms of which they “make sense”. The qualitative richness of each person’s perceptual world is created by the dynamic qualities of his of her body image; without it there would be no world that anyone could know. (Rosenfield, 1992, p. 49)

The second stream of Schilder’s (1935/1978) thinking identified by Tiemersma (1989) as being highly original was his description of the development of narcissism. Tiemersma noted that Schilder departed slightly from Freud’s (1914/1984) description, and in so doing specified more precisely the subjective bodily entity from which that developmental stage is structured. This acute observation by Schilder has been overlooked in the psychoanalytic literature, but as Grosz (1994, p. 74) noted, is the axis on which Lacan’s mirror stage “coalesces” with Schilder’s work.

The remainder of this paper presents and discusses selected excerpts from a qualitative study exploring the pertinence of Schilder’s (1935/1978) theory to a psychological understanding of the body image. Qualitative research is characterised by its elaborative capacity. The application of theory to qualitative research does not provide a determinate truth, but is “a way of asking [a new question] that is guided by a reasonable answer” (Wolcott, 2001, p. 81). Qualitative methods thus do not confirm or disconfirm hypotheses, but are “material practices that make the world visible” (Denzin & Lincoln, 2003. p. 4).

A qualitative study of the dynamic body image

The study described here (Hanley, 2004) aimed to explore the applicability of Schilder’s theory to psychological research. Fifteen participants were recruited and interviewed using an especially prepared semi-structured interview protocol. The interviewees comprised of 5 Middle-eastern dancers, 5 contemporary dancers and 5 aerobics instructors. The three styles of movement chosen for the study were considered appropriate on the basis that they were different enough from each other to provide a workable structure for the triangulation of interview content against itself, and against the theoretical framework and wider literature. The age range of the participant group was from 25 to 44 years. The ethnicity of participants was not recorded, although it is important to mention that none of the Middle-eastern dancers (a.k.a. Belly dancing) self-identified as Middle-eastern from a cultural perspective.

Given that Schilder (1935/1978) identified movement as an important aspect of body image construction, the central strategy adopted in this study was to ask each of the 15 participants about their movement, rather than their appearance. The three groups were of course very different in the way they described their movement, and those differences were influenced by the training they had received and the purpose they attributed to their movement.

Bringing Schilder’s (1935/1978) theory to the task of psychological research required, first that core propositions be defined from his text. While qualitative research in the discipline of psychology has preferred discourse analytic methods, the qualitative approach adopted for this study established core propositions from his theory and applied them as “theory-derived sensitizing concepts” (Patton 2002: 454) for the process of analytic induction. Further themes were derived inductively. The analysis of the interviews yielded 14 themes, six a priori and eight a posteriori, which were further grouped into one of three broader themes or metacodes. The following is a description of one theme pertaining to the effort to find the body in the execution of movement. It explores the role that kinaesthetic perception plays in proving a frame of reference in the psychological experience of the body.

The role of kinaesthetic experience in body image construction

All the participants identified that their movement provided them with an experience of their body that brought about a greater mindfulness of what they referred to as an ‘inside’ to their body image. This inside might be referred to as body awareness if considered only from the point of view of the kinaesthetic perceptual system, but from the point of view of the dynamic theory, it is also a psycho-physiological construction and part of the body image. The three interview excerpts presented below, illustrate how three participants were able to explain what this ‘inside’ idea was. The first excerpt is by a contemporary dancer attempting to qualify the difference between her improvisational movement and what she saw as its antithesis, classical ballet:

It sounds incredibly dumb, and it’s not entirely true ‘cos it’s greyer than this…but it’s the difference between understanding where you are by some sort of experiential thing, rather than ‘how do I look?’

And it’s not as different as that because obviously I’m aware of [how I look] as well, but there’s something about… if you spend all your time thinking about exactly where you are because of where you’re supposed to be [according to the classical form], and you’re making a parallel between what you think you’re supposed to be doing and what you are doing, it gives you a certain way of thinking about where your body is. As opposed to thinking about where I am in relation to some idea I’ve got or whatever. They’re different. One’s not better than the other…there are different ways.

This excerpt highlights that this particular participant developed a perspective on her movement that derived from the subjective experience of doing it, as opposed to what she might have learned through perfecting the formal rules on how her movement should look. It relied upon her being able to exercise greater mindfulness to her self-referential perception during movement (i.e. kinaesthetic perception) in preference to a greater mindfulness of how her body appeared to others while moving. This attentiveness was described by a different contemporary dancer as the creation of her “internal form”.

The next example is from one of the Middle-eastern dancers:

Generally when I think about my body through dance, it’s very positive and growthful, and it’s learning and there’s more to go and there’s somewhere to go with it and it’s a good sense of body image through thinking about movement. However, if I walk out and I’m not thinking about dance or I’m not thinking through that way, but I’m thinking through ‘out there’ and what’s expected of me, I have a very poor self image…and I actually still have a lot of problems to do with how I see my body and how I relate to food and my body.

This example highlights the participant’s observation of her knowledge acquisition in a very clear way. Her knowledge, reflected through her description of her body image when moving, illustrates a growing awareness of a frame reference she had become mindful of through her dance training. This frame of reference, the body image, was not a stable experience, but could be disrupted if her mindful attention drifted to culturally driven discourses about the female body.

The next example was recorded from an interview with one of the aerobics instructors:

I’ve got a sister who doesn’t exercise. That girl, every time she goes out [she] changes her outfit 50 times […] She’s got to stand in front of the mirror, turn, turn, turn, ‘what does this look like?’ She needs to find some kind of inner balance and she could get that from just moving.

Interviewer: What’s inner balance?

It’s trying to find some sort of degree of acceptance and not being so critical about things. And I put it back on the movement side of things.

Interviewer: That inner balance that you’re offering for other people is sort of like a shift isn’t it. It’s like “don’t just look in the mirror”, you’re asking them to do something else, what is it?

Because without it they’ll give up [laughs]

Interviewer: But where are you shifting them to?

I know what I mean, but I don’t really know....

In spite of the fact that this aerobics instructor had difficulty describing what she knew, she conveyed a similar idea to the other two participants, which was that her movement provided her with knowledge, although she didn’t have a set of ideas, conceptual material, through which to articulate what that knowledge was. From the point of view of the study of motor development alone, these excerpts all present examples of how movement training refined participants’ knowledge of their body awareness. From the point of view of dynamic construction that knowledge acquisition has more profound implications.


In this study, movement represented a domain through which to demonstrate the viability of dynamic construction, but it should be underlined that movement is by no means the only domain through which construction takes place. Nevertheless, within that domain the findings described here highlighted that when the body image is conceived of as a dynamic process of construction, that is, cognitive work rather than a cognitive unit, the kinaesthetic perceptual system can be recognised as an important physical basis and psychological frame of reference in that construction. The differences in my participants’ ability to explain their acquired knowledge highlighted how the discourses we are exposed to shape the construction we come to identify as our own. Compared with how the body image is generally understood in the discipline of psychology, these examples highlight how the entity of the body image is more akin to a plastic and largely unconscious phantom body or imaginary landscape, than to a visual image we hold in our memory. This insight was the basis of Schilder’s (1935/1978) thesis.

As a final comment, it is pertinent to present one last excerpt that exemplifies what Schilder (1935/1978) sought to find out through his theory, that is, of how human beings arrive at a knowledge of their own body. In this example the participant has been probed to qualify her use of a metaphor pertaining to the wakefulness of the body:

Interviewer: What is it that you know that makes your body more “awake” than mine?

Well intention is always central…my intention over many years has been to awaken the experience of my body…[so] there are places I’ve been to that you haven’t because no-one’s probably given you permission or set that intention for you…

This example does not aim to introduce the interviewer’s subjectivity as a point of reference, but simply to highlight the response by this participant to a probing question that pressed her to elaborate on what ‘a wakeful body’ meant. From the point of view of dynamic construction, the places referred to by this participant were mapped on her kinaesthetic memory and the construction of these places were made available through the refined kinaesthetic figure-ground ability consolidated by her training. (This participant was in her 40s at the time of the interview). In terms of body image construction and Schilder’s(1935/1978) theory, her experience of being more awake is a physical reality in that she would have consolidated a greater awareness though her training. It manifests as a refined ability to think through movement, or to conceive a movement. It is also a construction unique to this participant in that she was able to portray both her self-knowledge and her demonstrable ability through the idea of being more awake. This was her knowledge about her constructed body.

Schilder’s (1935/1978) description of a tri-dimensional framework and synaesthetically constructed image, suggests that the structural-functional constructs popularised by the discipline of psychology need to be re-examined with respect to their criterion validity. Those definitions have tended to characterise the notion of the ‘image’ in body image purely from the point of view of visual perception and thus have ignored the synaesthetic character of perception and self-apperception. They have also focused too heavily on the differential diagnosis of symptoms, rather than normal experience and normal development. Schilder’s theory is a valuable framework through which to think about normal experience given it examines relationships between perception, self-apperception and psychological wellbeing. Of significance is the way his theory invites heuristic endeavours to shift focus away from diagnostic and nosological concerns, toward questions on the way we “arrive at a knowledge of [our] own body” (p. 290). Such a shift would necessarily require a reassessment of the status of the constructed body, first described by Freud (1950/1966).

What Schilder’s (1935/1978) theory tells us is that the body image is the conscious limit through which we construct and know our body and ourselves as psychological subjects. Its neurological aspects highlight the unconscious process of dynamic construction that bridges our experience of the subpersonal processes of the body with our more conscious experience of the bodily ego. Its psychological aspects highlight its role as a cognitive anchor for psychological life and the sense of unity and continuity that anchor our experience of the body in relation to time, space and causality. Schilder’s theory revisited thus provides new insights for psychological research because it describes the activity and frame of reference whereby subjective experience can be reexamined and reconceptualised from a point of view that might not otherwise have been available.


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